“The Impossibility of a University”

I was just reading David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom. He published the first edition in 1973. Amidst the wild ride of the contemporary American university (Evergreen State College being the most heinous single episode), one passage seems especially prescient.

From chapter twelve in the third edition:

The modern corporate university, public or private, contains an implicit contradiction: it cannot take positions, but it must take positions [sides]. The second makes the demand for a responsible university appealing, intellectually as well as emotionally. The first makes not merely the acceptance of that demand but its very consideration something fundamentally subversive of the university’s proper ends.

It cannot take positions because if it does, the efforts of its members will be diverted from the search for truth to the attempt to control the decision-making process. If it takes a public position on an important matter of controversy, those on each side of the controversy will be tempted to try to keep out new faculty members who hold the other position, in order to be sure that the university makes what they consider the right decision. To hire an incompetent supporter of the other side would be undesirable; to hire a competent one, who might persuade enough faculty members to reverse the university’s stand, catastrophic. Departments in a university that reaches corporate decisions in important matters will tend to become groups of true believers, closed to all who do not share the proper orthodoxy. They so forfeit one of the principal tools in the pursuit of truth — intellectual conflict.

A university must take positions. It is a large corporation with expenditures of tens of millions of dollars and an endowment of hundreds of millions. It must act, and to act it must decide what is true. What causes high crime rates? Should it protect its members by hiring university police or by spending money on neighborhood relations or community organizing? What effect will certain fiscal policies have on the stock market, and thus the university’s endowment? Should the university argue for them? These are issues of professional controversy within the academic community.

A university may proclaim its neutrality, but neutrality as the left quite properly argues, is also a position. If one believes that the election of Ronald Reagan or Teddy Kennedy would be a national tragedy, a tragedy in particular for the university, how can one justify letting the university, with its vast resources of wealth and influence, remain neutral?

The best possible solution within the present university structure has been not neutrality but the ignorance or impotence of the university community. As long as students and faculty do not know that the university is bribing politicians, investing in countries with dictatorial regimes, or whatever, and as long as they have no way of influencing the university’s actions, those acts will not hinder the university in its proper function of pursuing truth, however much good or damage they may do in the outside world. Once the university community realizes that the university does, or can, take actions substantially affecting the outside world and that students and faculty can influence those actions, the game is up.

There is no satisfactory solution to this dilemma within the structure of the present corporate university. In most of the better universities, the faculty has ultimate control. A university run from the outside, by a state government or a self-perpetuating board of trustees, has its own problems. A university can pretend to make no decisions or can pretend that the faculty has no control over them, for a while. Eventually someone will point out exactly what the emperor is wearing.

With an activist culture in place, the university endures more and more blows to its truth-seeking abilities. UC Berkeley spent an estimated $600,000 on security for Ben Shapiro a couple months ago, after the chaos and protests of the past year. Staff cut seating in half, worried that protesters would dismantle chairs and throw them onto the audience on the bottom floor. Now, so I hear, student clubs are having difficulty hosting evening meetings on campus, as the administration makes up for the expenses by cutting down on electricity usage and janitorial services. Club stipends, of course, are down. All of this damages the educational environment.

My friends went to see Ben, and watched a woman with a “Support the First Amendment! Shalom Shapiro!” sign get dragged into a crowd and beat up. (Not reported by major media; falsely reported as a knifing by right-wing media.) David identified the internal problem of the corporate university, which I believe we see escalating; the external problem is when outsiders — most of the violent rioters in Berkeley since the beginning of 2017 — understand the political power of the university and the speech that goes on there, and seek to control the process of intellectual conflict through physical force. Both are advanced in accordance with the political involvement of the students as well as the teachers.

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